Ibn al-Rawandi

Ibn al-Rawandi

Ibn al-Rawandi 9th century C.E.) was an early skeptic of Islam and religion in general within the Muslim world, became one of Islam's most notorious heretics for his denial of the phenomenon of prophecy. His most famous book to have survived from that time is the Kitab al-Zumurrud (The Book of the Emerald).


Abu al-Husayn Ahmad b. Yahya b. Ishaq al-Rawandi was born in Merv-rudh, in northwest Afghanistan, about the year 815 A.D. He joined the Mu'tazili of Baghdad, and gained prominence among them. But when he approached the age of forty he became estranged from his fellow Mutazilites, and formed close alliances with non-Mutazilites, both Muslims (Shi'is) and non- Muslims (Manichaeans, Jews and perhaps also Christians). He wrote against the Mutazila, and they reciprocated in kind.


It is generally agreed that Ibn al-Rawandi was indeed a heretic, but there is no agreement as to the nature of his heresy. Some look for the roots of his heresy in his connections with Shi'ism, and depict him as a Mutazilite gone wild; some regard him as an Aristotelian philosopher, while others see him as a radical atheist, and some stress the political challenge he presented to the Islamic polity.

At the same time, scholars try to account for the more positive view of Ibn al-Rawandi in some Muslim sources. Josef van Ess in particular has suggested an original interpretation that aims at accommodating all the contradictory information. Van Ess notes that the sources which portray Ibn al-Rawandi as a heretic are predominantly Mutazilite and stem from Iraq, whereas in eastern texts he appears in a more positive light. As an explanation for this difference, van Ess suggests "a collision of two different intellectual traditions," i.e., those in Iran and in Iraq. He further suggests that Ibn al-Rawandi's notoriety was the result of the fact that after Ibn al-Rawandi left Baghdad, "his colleagues in Baghdad ... profiting from his absence ... could create a black legend." In other words, van Ess believes that Ibn al-Rawandi, although admittedly eccentric and disputatious, was not a heretic at all.

He was a true freethinker, in the sense that he rejected the authority of any scriptural or revealed religion. This is borne out by citations from his other writings, besides the Zumurrud: the K. al-Damigh against the Quran, and "The Futility of (Divine) Wisdom" (Abath al-hikma). Ibn al-Rawandi's complete break with Islam is reflected not only in the contents of these books, but also in their tone. Some of the questions presented by Ibn al-Rawandi in the Damigh could perhaps be asked by a Muslim commentator with an inquisitive mind who was trying to reconcile two apparently contradictory verses. But no Muslim would introduce such a question with a declaration that God does not know how to add two to four and make six. A tormented Muslim might inquire into theodicy, but no Muslim would conclude the inquiry with the statement that God behaves like a wrathful, murderous enemy. And a pious Muslim might question the inherent value of the rituals in the pilgrimage. But for a Muslim, this question highlights the notion of submission to the superior knowledge of God and His Prophet, whereas for Ibn al-Rawandi it implies the primitive nature of the Muslim rites. A person who presents Ibn al-Rawandi's questions in the tone that he adopts, could not remain a Muslim in any meaningful way.(112) Indeed, it was the tone of Ibn al-Rawandi's arguments as much as their content that infuriated Muslims. This is reflected in Ibn al-Jawzi's comment that Ibn al-Rawandi was worse than Iblis, because although Iblis disobeyed God, at least he addressed Him with respect.

Subjects discussed in the Kitab al-Zumurrud:

Arguments relating to the primacy of the intellect

God has bestowed upon human beings the gift of intellect, by which they can judge right and wrong. If what the prophets announce corresponds to what the intellect decrees, then prophets are superfluous. If it contradicts what the intellect decrees, then one should not listen to them.(132) The discussion with the Barahima, the issue of the abrogation of the law, and the question of the possibility of substituting one law for another are also part of this argument.(133) The argument is then applied to Islam in particular.(134)

Connected with the claim of the sufficiency of human intellect is the discussion of various expressions of this intellect.(135) Human children are taught to speak by their parents, from one generation to another, and this has always been the case.(136) Ibn al-Rawandi is here probably addressing the question of whether human speech is natural or conventional. He seems to favor the solution of ilham (i.e., natural, innate knowledge), although the term itself does not appear. From the dais answer we can see that Ibn al-Rawandi gave various examples of innate knowledge (the ability of birds to Communicate with each other, the ability of ducks to swim, the ability of infants to suck milk), and that these were mentioned by him as being analogous to speech and understanding.

The sciences are also mentioned by Ibn al-Rawandi as proof for the sufficiency of the intellect. According to him, people developed the science of astronomy by watching the skies. They did not need a prophet to teach them how to watch. Nor did they need prophets in order to teach them how to build lutes. It is absurd to assume that without prophetic revelation people would not have learned that the intestines of a sheep, when dried and stretched upon a piece of wood, can produce pleasant tones. All these skills are acquired by the assiduous application of the inborn human intellect, discernment and power of observation.

Kraus thought that this part of the book opened with a paragraph praising the intellect in rhymed prose, one sentence of which is to be found in the dai's refutation.(137) Kraus noted that neither the dai nor Ibn al-Rawandi were given to writing rhymes. He argued that the only place one could expect either one of them to use such a sentence would be in an opening chapter of a conventional nature, where the praise of the intellect is sung before the real discussion begins. He therefore suggested that the Zumurrud had a poetic opening in which Ibn al-Rawandi glorified the intellect, and that the dai opened his response with a poetic paraphrase of Ibn al-Rawandi's verse.(138)

It is indeed possible that this, sentence is taken from an introduction written in flowery style. I do not think, however, that it could come from Ibn al-Rawandi's pen. Had this been the case, the dai would probably have said so explicitly, as he always does when he wants to attack something said by Ibn al-Rawandi. It is more likely that this sentence was written by the dai.(139) Furthermore, in the debate with the Kitab al-Zumurrud the proper estimate of the role of the intellect was not a side-issue, but stood at the core of the discussion. It is therefore likely that, rather than being a conventional opening, the reference to "the person who claims to cover the horizons of science with the wings of the intellect" is the dai's direct assault on Ibn al-Rawandi' s intellectualist pretensions.

Arguments relating to Muslim traditions

According to the Zumurrud, traditions concerning miracles are inevitably problematic. At the time of the performance of a supposed miracle only a small number of people could be close enough to the Prophet to observe his deeds. Reports given by such a small number of people cannot be trusted, for such a small group can easily have conspired to lie.(144) The Muslim tradition thus falls into the category of flimsy traditions, those based on a single authority (khabar al-ahad) rather than on multiple authorities (khabar mutawatir).(145) These religious traditions are lies endorsed by conspiracies.

The Zumurrud points out that Muhammad's own presuppositions (wad) and system (qanun)(146) show that religious traditions are not trustworthy. The Jews and Christians say that Jesus really died, but the Quran contradicts them.(147) If statements made by so many people cannot be trusted, all the more so the testimony of a handful of people like Muhammad's followers.

Ibn al-Rawandi also points out specific Muslim traditions, and tries to show that they are laughable. The tradition that the angels rallied round to help Muhammad is not logical, because it implies that the angels of Badr were weaklings, able to kill only seventy of the Prophet' s enemies. And if the angels were willing to help Muhammad at Badr, where were they at Uhud, when their help was so badly needed?(148)

Arguments relating to miracles

An important part of the Zumurrud is devoted to arguing that the miracles of the prophets are products of legerdemain. Like magicians, prophets exploit unusual natural phenomena, similar to the magnet but not as well known.(149) A number of Muhammad's miracles are specifically mentioned: the ablution basin, Umm Mabad's sheep, Suraqa, the wolf who talked, the intoxicated sheep who talked, and the isra.(150) According to the Zumurrud, the distance between Mecca and Jerusalem is not very great, and it is conceivable that a person could go from one of these cities to the other and back in one night, so the Prophet's presentation of his ability to describe Jerusalem as a miracle is a fraudulent trick (makhraq).(151) Even the Prophet's ability to predict the future (as in the case of the slaying of Ammar b. Yasir) is not regarded as a miracle, since it is claimed that any astrologer can do that.(152)

Arguments relating to the Muslim rituals

The Zumurrud criticizes prayer, preoccupation with ritual purity, and the ceremonies of the hajj: throwing stones, circumambulating a house that cannot respond to prayers, running between stones that can neither help nor harm. It goes on to ask why Safa and Marwa are venerated, and what difference there is between them and any other hill in the vicinity of Mecca, for example the hill of Abu Qubays, and why the Kaaba is any better than any other house.(153)

This sketch of the arguments contained in the Zumurrud confirms several of the conclusions presented in previous sections of the present study. It shows the close similarity between the Majalis Muayyadiyya, Maturidi and the Tathbit, and thus corroborates the claim that they derive from the same source, the Zumurrud. It also strengthens the impression that all three sources summarize rather than quote the Zumurrud. And it shows that none of the three sources relied on either of the other two for its information, since in each one of them we find elements that are lacking in the other two. A comparison of the sources allows us to see that the same arguments are attributed at times to Ibn al- Rawandi, at times to al-Warraq and at times to both of them. A correct understanding of the Zumurrud must allow for the active participation of both Ibn al-Rawandi and al-Warraq in the dialogue, and take into account the heretical convictions of both of them.

From the "Encyclopedia of Islam"On Ibn al-Rawandi, from the Encyclopaedia of Islam, 1971, Volume 3, E J Brill, Leiden, p 905] : "The plentiful extracts from the K. al-Zumurraudh provide a fairly clear indication of the most heterodox doctrine of Ibn al-Rawandi, that of which posterity has been least willing to forgive him: a biting criticism of prophecy in general and of the prophecy of Muhammad in particular; he maintains in addition that religious dogmas are not acceptable to reason and must, therefore, be rejected; the miracles attributed to the Prophets, persons who may reasonably be compared to sorcerers and magicians, are pure invention, and the greatest of the miracles in the eyes of orthodox Muslims, the Quran, gets no better treatment: it is neither a revealed book nor even an inimitable literary masterpiece. In order to cloak his thesis, which attacks the root of all types of religion, Ibn al-Rawandi used the fiction that they were uttered by Brahmans. His reputation as irreligious iconoclast spread in the 4th/10th century beyond the borders of Muslim literature."

External links

* [http://ismaili.net/mirrors/7ismaili/ismaili.html The blinding emerald: Ibn al-Rawandi's 'Kitab al-Zumurrud.']


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